Monday, June 30, 2008

Chaya Thai

Chaya has two restaurants in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco which all serve wonderful Asian fusion cuisine in unique decor.

Chaya Venice is the restaurant I frequent the most because they offer a wonderful sushi bar in addition to their main restaurant (they also offer their sushi selections at the tables if you prefer that to sitting at the sushi bar). If you go early enough they even have a sushi bar happy hour with their rolls at half price. I prefer the seats by the window simply because in this bare floor restaurant the noise level is lower away from the center and you can actually hear your dinner companions when they talk. The food is the epitome of what other chefs aspire to in Asian fusion. The marriage of Asian spices with Californian fresh ingredients and French techniques is perfectly balanced here. My preferred entree is the grilled sea bass done with a ginger and miso sauce, served with fresh leafy vegetables; their sushi bar carries the elusive Spanish mackerel, and their selection of scotches and sakes can make you take a taxi home if you don't watch your intake (be smart and take a taxi here so you don't have to leave your car). If you are in the mood before or after your dinner to talk a walk, Venice Beach is only two blocks away, but if night has fallen, you are safer walking along Main Street, where you have well lit streets to safely window shop (most of the stores close at nightfall).

Chaya Brasserie, near the original Ivy, is a great place to go after a day of shopping on trendy Robertson. This location offers live music and a wonderful wine selection with an eclectic menu of daily specials and familiar favorites. The decor feels very South Pacific / Southeast Asian with giant electric fans overhead and a wooden floor. The menu astounds with the flavors that combine in imaginative and unique ways, like the short ribs braised in a lavender infused reduction or the vegetarian mixed vegetables with tofu that has been marinated to give it dimension and a kick. The wine selection here is superb, so ask for your waiter to suggest the best accompaniment to your meal if you don't have a preference; you won't be disappointed.

On my next trip to San Francisco I will try the Chaya there; it's always nice to have something to look forward to, especially when you are familiar with the concept and love it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Late Night Bars

Ever been out to dinner and you want to go somewhere else for a drink, maybe some music or entertainment, but made no plans and have no ideas where?

Liquid Kitty is a small hole in the wall bar that is probably best known as the setting for numerous TV episodes. If you drink, their martinis are better than average, and if you don't drink, you can sip a soda as you listen to the DJ spin dance worthy tunes into the night. If you are lucky, you may find live music, karaoke, or if you go Wednesday night, bring your iPod and you could play DJ that night! This is definitely a 20-30's crowd, but if you're over 40 and cool, you will be comfortable with the slightly seedy vibe.

Plan B offers very decent food with bikini dancers until 2am, so if you skipped dinner and find yourself hungry at midnight this truly is a good Plan B to a 24 hour mediocre breakfast diner. I've gone with male friends and felt perfectly comfortable and welcome as a female customer in what could be described as a bikini bar (in the 60's it would have been called a go-go bar). Most of the dancers are college students from the nearby UCLA campus and because they are clothed, there is a sexy, not skanky, vibe to the place. I was also very surprised by both the service and the menu. I had a napoleon of wild mushrooms and a delicious jumbo shrimp cocktail that were both worthy of a restaurant here. If you haven't eaten dinner, you can have it here, whether you want a marinated swordfish with tomato aioli or a broiled filet mignon with spinach, green beans, potatoes gratin, and either sauteed mushrooms or a gorgonzola sauce. Their prices are very reasonable (like $28 for surf and turf); and they even have a decent wine list (but order a cocktail, it just isn't a wine bar kind of atmosphere here).

The night is young, go out after dinner!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Priceless Chinese Food

Dim Sum literally means "heart warmer" but the true translation is small bits of goodness for brunch. In Hong Kong, servers wheel carts around to tables, yelling out what they offer, and you order what looks or sounds good by waving down the cart and pointing to the dishes you want; it's a bit like hailing a food taxi. The bill at the end of the meal is calculated by the size and number of plates on your table. There are numerous places in Chinatowns across the world which serve Dim Sum, but finding a good Chinese Dim Sum restaurant is like finding good pizza; if you live in a place where people come from the same country as the food, your chances are better.

Los Angeles has a small Chinatown (compared to S.F. and N.Y.C.) and there are some decent Dim Sum places, but the stress of driving downtown, finding parking, and then trying to get decent service if you do not speak Chinese (or look Chinese) is simply not worth the hassle for most people (including me, and I am of Chinese origin). If you are willing to endure the experience, my advice is to push back if you are pushed while waiting in line, and to yell back if someone yells at you, even if it is an old woman who is pushing and yelling at you, otherwise you will never get any food, drinks, or attention from the servers. When you are hungry, having to be aggressive to get food may come naturally, but it's just too much work for me to endure; I prefer peace and ease with my food.

To find a good place for Dim Sum away from the madness is a treasure, but there is one restaurant in West Los Angeles (near Brentwood), called VIP Harbor Seafood, and they even have validated valet parking if you can't find street parking. This restaurant serves Dim Sum for $2.50-$4.75 per plate and they serve it Hong Kong Style on wheeled carts that roam around the tables. The added bonus here is that they tend to understand enough English to stop their carts and serve you what you want when you flag them down. All the usual specialties are served including the classic Har Gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), spare ribs with black bean sauce (these are tiny bite sized ribs, not the kind you find in a BBQ joint), rice noodles with beef, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce, shrimp stuffed bell peppers, baked BBQ pork buns (a good way to initiate a novice to Dim Sum since it is basically a sweet dough wrapped around BBQ pork), and sweets like egg custard tarts in a flaky shell. VIP Harbor Seafood also serves up nice lunches and dinners, but their Dim Sum offerings are a rare find and should be experienced at least once, especially if you have never tried Dim Sum. In this peaceful easy setting, you can see if you like it enough to brave going thorough the hassles of Chinatown for more exotic fare like chicken feet in black bean sauce.

Hop Li Seafood serves up lunch and dinner at four locations in Los Angeles, only one of which is in Chinatown, so you can have the same great food without the hassles closer to your home (if you don't live in Chinatown). Like VIP Harbor, Hop Li specializes in seafood and there are fish/lobster/crab/shrimp tanks in the restaurant which serve as part of the decor as well as part of the menu. They literally pluck out the lobster, crabs, shrimps or geoduck clams when you place your order. This is seafood as fresh as you can get it, without being on a boat. I love their fresh crab with ginger and scallions, and their spicy salted shrimp; both are served on gigantic platters which invite everyone at the table to dig in and feast. They also offer wonderful fresh vegetable sautes like their Buddha's Feast assortment, rice noodle dishes like Chow Fun, and the usual Kung Pao and Fried Rice. Having Chinese-American standards on their menu does not stop them from offering the more esoteric dishes like jellyfish and salted fish casseroles, so you can come here and be happy whether you are a timid novice or fearless expert eater. They even make parking easy by offering valet parking in case you need it.

Good Chinese food is hard to find, but good Chinese food in pleasant surroundings, with easy parking and good service, even if you don't speak or look Chinese, that is priceless.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Chill Factor

It is hot here in Southern California in the summer, but nothing like the heat in the desert. I used to live in Palm Springs where it has reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Those of us who live (or have lived) in hot places know the necessity of cooling off when it seems we step into Hell every time we step outdoors. In Palm Springs the shops and restaurants use misting systems to add some humidity and cooling without having to pay the staggering air conditioning bills. But what if you are not in town or in your car and you need some cooling relief without the aid of air conditioners or misters?

Chill Factor is a clothing company founded in Tempe, AZ which makes caps and neck coolers which you can wear anywhere. Their products contain hydro crystals will swell to over 400 times their original size, and transform into a cooling gel. It is simple to use, just soak the cap or neck cooler in cold or ice water for about half and hour and then wear it! The cap and neck coolers are washable by hand and completely reusable. With prices ranging from $5-$25 it makes sense to buy two so you can switch off if you are going to be outdoors for several hours. Golfers love this product, as does anyone outdoors for any length of time in the summer. Even people who are indoors all day appreciate the cooling factor if they heat up doing physically intensive labor all day; movers, trainers, and construction workers all love these items. They make kid sized clothing too, so the little ones can benefit.

Chill out this summer with chill factor clothing of you can't get to your favorite pool or beach.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Avoid LA traffic jams

Los Angeles traffic can be a nightmare, especially if you are stuck in it and have no way of knowing if the traffic continues for another few minutes or an hour. Whenever I am on my way out, I check the traffic on my computer before I drive by going to the sigalert website on ABC7. It shows the flow of traffic; red is SLOW, orange is moving, yellow is almost freeway speed, and green is traffic actually going freeway speed! There are also triangles showing road hazards or accidents along with the time of each occurrence. With maps for all the counties in and around around L.A., you can click on all the areas you plan to travel through, or just keep it on your home or work destinations. It always helps to see if an alternate route would be better before you find out by getting stuck on the road.

What if you are already on the road and are nowhere near a computer? Do you have an internet enabled wireless phone? One of the other local Los Angeles TV stations has a new free download for your internet enabled phone (for almost all phones except the iphone, which will be available this summer) that shows you LIVE traffic on your route from over 270 cameras while you are in your car! Just go to KNBC's website, put in your cell phone number, and they will send you the download. It's easy and it actually works! And if you live in NY or CT, they offer the same service at the Third Dimension website.

If your route is finally clear but now you can't find the address you were heading to, then just use your phone to text GOOGLE and text in the name or subject of your destination. This is free, so it's like using a 411 service only in text (which is actually more convenient when you are on the road because then you don't have to write it down). Remember with the new law effective July 1, 2008 in California, you MUST use a hands free device if you are driving while using your cell phone, so PULL OVER to use this service (or have someone else in your car do it if you are driving).

Traffic is a fact of life in Los Angeles, but with a little bit of planning and some good connections, you can make it easier, just like life.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Got bars? Got junk?

Have you ever been frustrated by a lack of cell phone reception in your home or on the road in the middle of a "dead cell phone zone"? If you are willing to take along a 3x5 inch plastic disk (not small, but not obnoxiously big either) that plugs into your phone, you can end your frustration. Freedom Antenna is a lifesaver when you need to make a call or have your call clear and steady. Not all phones have a port for this antenna, but all networks support it, so if you can't live without a good wireless cell phone connection it may be worth the $31.95 to buy this and keep it with your phone.

OK, now that you have bars on your cell phone, why not call someone to get rid of the clutter in your home or office? What if you didn't have to order a dumpster, or load any of the stuff yourself? Call 1-800-got-junk and they will literally do all the heavy lifting for you. For those of us who have old refrigerators (too heavy to move alone), soil or construction debris (how would you dispose of a wall?), or mattresses, appliances and old stuff no charity will accept, this is an easy way to get it either recycled or dumped legally and easily. They also pick up from commercial addresses, so if your business has just been remodeled or moved, you can pay professionals to remove the leftover junk effectively, instead of paying your employees for labor they were not hired to perform.

Clear reception and a clear home/office space, now to work on achieving a clear desk:)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Jet Taxi

How much is your time worth? With all the hassles and lines at commercial airports these days, and with the price of gas here in CA reaching the $5 per gallon mark, would it be worth your time and money to get to your destination quickly, easily, and almost hassle-free? Have you always wanted to fly in a Cessna, or wanted to take a jet, but don't have the funds or connections to make it happen? What if you could get to your destination in a private jet? It's a choice we all have now with the jet taxi services which allow you to take them on demand, just as you would a taxi; think of it as an air taxi service. Now you can live the life of a jetsetter with a jet taxi service that operates in the Southeast and Northeast for a very reasonable price.

Imagine Air operates primarily around the Southeast area, originating out of Atlanta. Their fleet is expanding so their flight ranges will also extend, but for the moment, you can fly with two of your friends, from Atlanta, GA to Charlotte, NC, then to Hilton Head Island, and back to Atlanta in a day for about $2000! Talk about affordable jet setting! The even offer a frequent flier type membership that gives you 20% off flights.

Are you stuck in New York but want to fly to Nantucket without the hassles of airports or driving? What if you could do it for only $500 per person (not including fees and taxes)? Linear Air has flights all over the Northeast and down to Imagine Air territory, so you can actually connect from one VLJ (Very Light Jet) taxi to another and fly from New York to Atlanta on a jet without any of the hassles of commercial airport security.

To fly on a jet or not to fly on a jet? Seems that is no longer a question if you can hail a jet taxi for your flight.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Trattoria Acqua La Jolla

Sometimes I just want get out of town and spend a day as a tourist, when I'm in that mood, one of the places I love to go is La Jolla Village. I love wandering around town window shopping the galleries and clothing stores, trying out old and new restaurants, and simply enjoying the ocean air and spirit of this beach community. The town has grown into a sprawling metropolis since I first started coming here in my college years, but one place keeps beckoning me back to visit and revisit.

A meal at Trattoria Acqua is enough of a reason to come to La Jolla. I discovered this hidden restaurant by accident one day as I was shopping in the complex above it. If you are walking on Prospect, the restaurant is actually below the street because the street slopes down a steep grade towards the ocean. That means that you get an ocean view as you dine at one of the window seats (the courtyard is also a pleasant experience if you can't get a reservation for one of the coveted view tables). Go for an early dinner so you are seated to enjoy the sunset over the ocean as you eat your meal by candlelight. This is a great place to take a date, but you can go with friends or solo, and still feel comfortable in the casual seaside atmosphere.

The food is rustic Italian based on organic ingredients, so the result is both familiar and fresh at the same time. I love their quaglie a beccafico, roasted sonoma quails wrapped with Italian bacon, with a stuffing of spinach, raisins and pine nuts, served with grilled polenta and a Marsala-mushroom sauce. When I'm in the mood for seafood I order the scampi al aglio, baked black tiger shrimp crusted with Parmesan breadcrumbs, garlic, white wine and parsley butter, served with baked polenta and organic vegetables. If you have any room for dessert after dinner (don't try to be a hero, just eat until you are full and take the rest home), get their budino di mirtile, warm blueberry bread pudding with blueberry gelato (there is fruit in the dessert, so doesn't that make it light?).

Service here is probably the best I have had in La Jolla, balancing attention and timing, while going above and beyond the ordinary. On one of my visits I ordered a daily fish special with a vanilla sauce that I did not care for and my waitress noticed that I did not eat much of my entree, so she not only asked me what I did not like (the sauce was too sweet for me, but the fish was excellent). She removed my plate and REPLACED my entire entree and substituted the special vanilla sauce with a simple piccata sauce. I tipped her very generously for her service to show my gratitude for making my meal so enjoyable. I have had entrees exchanged for another or problems with an entree fixed, but aside from Acqua, I have never had an entree CHANGED because of my personal preference.

After your meal take a passeggi (stroll) along the shoreline or on Prospect as everyone in Italy does after their evening meal. This is truly la Dolce Vita (the good life).

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Malibu with a View

Malibu is legendary as a celebrity enclave, but it is also a great village with a small active community. To truly taste life here, stay for a few days and hang out like a native.

Malibu Beach Inn has just been renovated and it is truly the best place to stay on Carbon beach (every room is on the beach with views of the beach or pier). Prices are about $100 less in the months shouldering July and August when it is still wonderful weather, so book a few days midweek in September to enjoy a less crowded town and beach (and feel like a local).

Everything in the rooms is top quality from the Molton Brown products in the bathroom, to the minibar stocked with Dean & DeLuca snacks. They tried to include everything you would want from complimentary (wired) highspeed internet access, to an ergonomically designed chair and workstation. If you just want to sit and watch the sunset in your Trina Turk robes while sipping one of the seven bottles of (good) Californian wines in every room, you could forget that you live anywhere else.

For a romantic dinner on your first night, I would go with wonderful French/Mediterranean food. Just a short drive to the north is Beau Rivage, which sits like a pink Mediterranean seashell next to the beach. Whether you want to start out with the escargot or the caviar, you can't go wrong with your choices here. The proprietor, Daniel, is a gracious and charming host who will make sure your experience is elegant and delicious. Choose the grilled striped bass or the rack of lamb with Mediterranean herbs and olive oil. Finish the evening with a digestif as you enjoy the live piano ushering in the night. Call ahead for reservations because this is a popular spot for weddings and private events that close the restaurant to public reservations.

Spend a day walking acround at the Malibu Country Mart with it's small exclusive shops and small playground (full of nannies with children most week-days) and wander over to the spiritual bookstore the Malibu Shaman, with the best small collection in town of everything New Age and spiritual in books, trinkets, candles, and music. There is usually a tarot or psychic reader in residence, so for some added fun, spend a session with the reader and see what the cards have to say.

If your stomach says let's go eat, then head over to Marmalade Cafe for breakfast at the Malibu Country Mart shopping center. This is classic healthy Californian food in a casual comfortable atmosphere. If you want a healthy meal, order the tofu and egg white omelet with spinach, tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms; if you are starving, order the Cross Creek special of buttermilk pancakes, maple turkey sausage, Italian chicken sausage, smoked bacon (or ham) and 2 eggs and you will be happy with your gigantic meal of fresh ingredients at reasonable prices. Most plates are more than enough to share unless you are famished or Michael Clarke Duncan gaining weight for another John Coffey size role.

Nobu Malibu is a great way to end your stay; what better way to end the day than by eating fresh Japanese sushi or specialties like the yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno or a Lobster shitake salad with spicy lemon dressing? Prefer beef? They have Australian Kobe beef. To end your Nobu Malibu meal, how about a fruit infused sake? It's the perfect dessert and drink in one.

End your stay with a stroll onto the Malibu Pier (now re-opened) and make a wish upon a celestial star to return for another view of Malibu.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rare Steak

It is nearly impossible for me to find a rare steak in any restaurant in the US. I love raw meat and eat steak tartare, so my definition of rare means it is cooked slightly more than raw but not to the point of being pink; in France this is called ordering a steak "bleu" or blue, meaning the flesh is cold in the middle (with a blue hue, hence the appellation). Yes, most of my friends are a bit appalled that I eat my meat this way, but I have one other rare steak lover friend who shares my preference and together we have probably sent back more steaks for being overdone than everyone else we know in Los Angeles, so finding a steakhouse who will cook their steaks to my preference is a "rare" find :)

Pacific Dining Car is probably the best steakhouse in Los Angeles, and it is definitely the best restaurant in an actual railway dining car! The railway car was actually moved nightly to avoid traffic (yes there was traffic in Los Angeles even eighty years ago), but it has been at the same downtown spot now since the 1920's with updated (but period appropriate) decor, including velvet curtains and miniature lamps. When you step inside the restaurant, it feels like you are in an episode of the TV series "The Wild Wild West". The decor makes it both a landmark and gives it a special occasion ambiance that will literally make your mouth smile.

They have been around since 1921 for a very good reason; all their meat is the highest quality USDA Prime, corn-fed, and cooked to perfection (they warn you on their menu that rare means cold and red in the center). I love the Baseball cut which is round, kinda like a baseball, but they have every cut you could possibility want, each done to whatever degree of doneness you prefer. An unusual bonus to their wonderful steaks is their round the clock hours, so if you are hungry after club hopping, you can get a perfect steak with a fine dining experience at 3am (yes there is the other famous downtown spot that serves steaks 24 hours a day, but this is the Maserati of steaks and the other is ... a bicycle). All this comes at a steep price, but quality is rarely cheap, and as long as you know you are getting your money's worth, why not spend it? Be part of history by eating in a Los Angeles landmark; your stomach will thank you.

Morel's French Steakhouse is another one of the few places where I can order a rare steak and get it cold and red in the middle. When I miss Paris, I like going to Morel's for the French ambiance and the cheese selection. There are actually two parts to this restaurant in the Grove shopping center; downstairs is the more casual bistro with outdoor seating, but upstairs is the fine dining restaurant that is the actual steakhouse. The steaks at the steakhouse come with three kinds of salt so you can season your steak as you wish (kosher flake salt, gray salt, or fleur de sel?) I love their sauteed garlic spinach side dish as the perfect accompaniment. Ask for one of the window seats in the restaurant so you have a view of the fountains (think mini-Bellagio) or the gigantic Christmas tree in the center of the Grove, depending on the season.

It's always a happy steak season when I can find a nice rare steak (both restaurants I mentioned will cook it well done, but why ruin a perfectly rare steak?).

Friday, June 20, 2008

Designer resale, pashminas, and purse hangers

Havoc is a designer consignment shop in Laguna Beach that offers high end labels at department store prices. Looking for a Louis Vuitton handbag that looks brand new? Find it here for about 30% of what you would pay retail. They have couture pieces from Thierry Mugler and Versace for several hundred rather than several thousand dollars. When you want the label, but not the sticker shock, browse the racks here (especially the 50% off rack in the back) and steal a designer deal without any guilt.

On Peppertree Lane in Laguna Beach there is a clothing and accessory store called Sutton Place that almost always has one or two sale racks with unbelievable deals. I have bought silk dresses there for $20 that normally retail for $100; and they have burned out velvet pashminas in beautiful spring colors for only $35 on another rack. Everything in the store is colorful, from long evening gowns in every color, to scarves and earrings to complete your outfit, they have it here. Peppertree Lane also has a nice gelato and chocolate shop, so you can enjoy a sweet treat after you make your purchase.

Purse hangers have been used in Europe for years, but most of my friends here have never seen or heard of them. Considering what some women pay for their purses, keeping it off the ground should be considered important (in some cases so important they prefer to hold their handbags in their laps rather than set it on the ground). A purse hook is a metal hook that allows you to hang your handbag off a table, but hooks are cumbersome and some do not fit in purses, so the preferred solution is a purse hanger that folds. These are small round disks that unfold to become a hook with a small disk on top that secures it to a table (or any flat surface). Most hangers will hold up to 15 pounds, so it is not for a laptop briefcase; if your purse weighs more than 15 pounds, you should really consider buying a rolling luggage piece instead of carrying that weight on your shoulder. Purse hangers sell for anywhere from a few dollars to fifty depending on the design (if you want real swarovski crystals you must pay for it). On Ebay, New York Company Store sells folding purse hangers starting at only 99 cents (plus $6.99 shipping) with the swarovski crystal hangers selling for under $20. Even if you usually put your purse on a chair or table, a purse hanger will give you more space while keeping your purse handy; who knows, you might want to offer your extra seat to that handsome stranger who has been flirting with you from across the room.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Outlaw charities

I have been donating to Amnesty International for many years. Even as a teenager I was impressed by their fights for the rights of political prisoners worldwide. It wasn't until recently that I realized how much work they do here in the US; they are one of the outlaw charities which fought for the rights of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to have due process in their cases. Laws are for everyone, and the US is no exception. Imagine being arrested without a warrant or trial for SIX years solely based on your name or appearance. Over 200 prisoners at Guantanamo endured that experience in the years after 9/11. What if you, your family, or friends were one of those harassed and arrested? Wouldn't you want to have someone fighting for your rights to know what you were charged with? Wouldn't you want a trial? Amnesty International was the outlaw organization that fought for those basic rights (and does it still). No one wants anything to do with a lawyer until they need one, hopefully you will never need one, but supporting Amnesty International is supporting human rights worldwide, even when that world is right here in the U.S.

The Hole in the Wall Gang was the name of the outlaw gang that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were part of in the wild west, but it is more famous today as the charity started by Paul Newman for kids who have cancer and serious blood diseases. It is a camp like all camps for kids, except this one has facilities and doctors on hand that make it possible for the kids with challenges to come play like kids. The best reason to live is to experience growth and joy; the kids at the Hole in the Wall Gang get to have fun and grow as they play with each other and the counselors. Uncle Paul shows up regularly to play with them, sharing his time and joy. There is no fee for the kids, so the program lives on donations. If you have time and want to share your energy, they need volunteers 19+ years old, so give money, time or both, to this Hole in the Wall Gang; they are joy and healing outlaws.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Beef and Other Burgers

Tyler's Burgers in Palm Springs is my favorite burger stand in Southern California. It is in what used to be a bus stop, so it's tiny, but centrally located, with a few tables outside (they have misters and umbrellas to combat the heat in the summer), and an old fashioned counter inside. They make their burgers the old fashioned way, with freshly ground meat, hand formed and grilled to order. Those who have only eaten at fast food chains will be shocked by the great difference fresh quality makes in a simple burger. I love their sliders, and for those who are not meat eaters, they make a fantastic tuna sandwich. Don't forget to order the nice hot, crispy and tender fries on the side.

The Counter serves beef, turkey, grilled chicken breast or veggie burgers with so many varieties of accompaniments that you can make over 300,000 combinations! All their meat burgers are made with meat that is humanely raised without antibiotics or hormones and are fed a vegetarian diet. Want black forest ham or guacamole on your burger? How about a roasted garlic aioli sauce or a peppercorn steak sauce? No problem. How about something exotic like sun dried tomatoes and a caramelized onion marmalade? Enough options yet? We haven't even discussed cheese, jalapeno jack or herb goat cheese spread? To simplify, you can just order a daily special (currently a red curry salmon) or their classic. I love that they offer my favorite option, bunless (imagine a burger on top of a salad). But since most people like a bun, they offer a regular, whole wheat or English muffin option. One nice side dish here is the option of yam fries, and for those with a sweet tooth, they have all the fountain drinks and milk shakes that go with the classic burger and fries. If you can still eat dessert, finish off your meal with a slice of key lime pie or a decadent caramel and chocolate brownie. If you have kids, they even have a menu for them that includes PB&J or Mac & cheese for the non meat eating little ones.

It's good to find burgers and fries that do not come out of a freezer, are made to order, and are made with some care and flair. If you are going to eat a burger, go get a good one and enjoy it!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Talk is Cheap

Sometimes emails and IM's just aren't enough and you want (or need) to communicate the old fashioned way, via telephone. With all the VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) options, my preferred provider is SKYPE. They have great features like IM, webcam, and voicemail (additional cost), and after 2 years they are so reliable and effective that Ebay decided to do business with them. Oprah uses Skype's webcam on her show to talk to guests from around the world.

I like them because even after so many people now know about them, they still have such easy set-up, accessible customer support, and fantastic prices (it used to be free, but now they charge about 2 cents). No matter what time or day you call, an international call is 2.1 cents per minute; yes, you read that correctly, 2.1 cents per minute. You can buy an unlimited monthly package for only $2.95 for calls to the US & Canada or $9.95 for calls anywhere in the world. Or pay as you go and buy 10 Euros worth (about 16 USD) which is good for 180 days; the credit only expires if you don't make at least one call in that time. The connections are steady, clear, and all you need is a good headset with a microphone to use it; if you plan to be on the the phone away from your computer, I would recommend buying a cordless VOIP phone (the jacks are different because it must plug into your computer-or buy an adapter for a regular phone). This is a great way to keep in touch with people who are overseas, like the (other) Elaine who writes the blog Paris for a Year to get her most up to date recommendations for things to do, see, and eat in Paris.

If you are away from a computer and need to make a call, then get a Global Phone calling card and you can use a land line or cell phone to call overseas or long distance 24/7 any day for an average of about 4.4 cents per minute. There are different prices depending on whether you are calling from or to a cell phone; for instance a call to a land line in France is 1 cent but to a cell phone it's .282 cents a minute. For calls to the continental US it's only .038 per minute and the most expensive call I found was to Zaire for .605 per minute. You have your calling card linked to a credit card, so you literally pay as you use it or not at all. It is a nice card to have when you are traveling (it works worldwide, so you can use it to call home). Since the company has been around since 1995, is privately held, provides phone services to over 500,000 customers in 130 countries, and is debt-free, they will probably still be in business when you need to make a call.

Even with talk this cheap, there are still some people you really do NOT want to talk to, and for those people give them your Rejection Hotline telephone number. Better than giving out a wrong number and disturbing someone you don't know. This is an easy and funny way to tell people you never want to talk to them again. They have local numbers for many cities, the message is unisex, and it will leave the caller laughing even through their rejection. They even have specific numbers for a specific topic, like a one night stand that you want to keep a one night stand.

To talk or not to talk, that is the question; now you have some options no matter what you answer.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Good Chains

The chains of restaurants which cover the US and the globe have made classics generic as they mass produce themselves. It is good to have more people experience and taste the flavors of faraway places close to home, but too often the quality and experience are so watered down and modified that the food no longer resembles the original. There are people overseas who think all hamburgers taste like the ones at McDonald's because that is the only one they have ever tasted; only those of us who live in the US know the mouthwatering pleasure of a freshly ground hand made patty grilled to order on a toasted bun with all the fixings. There is a reason that burger lovers don't pick a fast food chain as their favorite burger place-they have a CHOICE, and with options, people always choose the opportunity to have better quality.

There are a few chains which give me hope that there is such a thing as a good chain. My definition of a good chain is one which captures and retains the flavors and quality that made it worthy of expansion in the first place. If it's pizza, it should have more than bland frozen dough smeared with canned sauce, and topped with canned toppings. I was born in NYC, so yes I am a pizza snob. There was only one pizza I've ever had in Los Angeles that I considered great pizza; unfortunately that one place has changed both its' management and recipes, so it now serves the generic bland fare found everywhere else. My hunt for the perfect pizza continues, and I constantly ask other pizza snobs for their favorites to cut down on wasting my time trying out all the hundreds of eateries claiming they are "the best".

One of my friends from NY told me about Papa John's pizza about 8 years ago, but because it is a chain, I did not try it until a few months ago (I am very hesitant to believe that any big chains have good food); I was happily surprised when I finally tasted Papa John's; it's not like NY pizza, but it's good and it's the only pizza from a chain that I will eat. Their fresh ingredients and fresh crust give their pizzas a quality that stands head and shoulders above the other chains; their sauce actually has flavor and they offer anchovies as a topping (beware places that don't because it shows that they cater to a bland clientele). My Californian health conscious friends like the assortment of fresh vegetable toppings and the availability of a whole wheat crust. I'm still on my quest for my perfect pizza in Los Angeles, but it's great to find a chain that makes it to the semi-finals.

One of the chains which originated in Los Angeles is California Pizza Kitchen, and they now have an offshoot with a global bent called L.A. Foodshow. Imagine all the culinary cultures of Los Angeles on one menu. You will find everything from grilled vegetable salads to miso salmon, and steak tacos. You can choose drinks that range from margaritas to mojitos to go with their poke martini appetizer (poke is a Hawaiian raw marinated fish dish like ceviche). For tourists to Los Angeles, this is one stop eating, for locals it's the place to go when you can't decide what you want to eat (or everyone wants something different). If this offshoot becomes as popular as California Pizza Kitchen, everyone will know what it's like to eat in Los Angeles.

I'm happy to find that a good chain is not an oxymoron; does that mean there is such a thing as a bad diamond?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Diamond Facial

My friends who live in California are buying property in Austin. Yes, they are moving to Texas (it's ok to go now; the state idiot doesn't live here anymore). Austin has grown more metropolitan with the influx of people looking for an affordable place to retire and simply to live as prices on the West Coast have skyrocketed; a three bedroom house on a nice piece of land in Austin costs less than a one bedroom condo here in Los Angeles. They are already known for having a vibrant country music scene and a world renowned University, but do they offer what displaced Californians would want? It seems the answer is yes. Celebrities like Sandra Bullock are opening hip restaurants in Austin using green philosophies (their "plastic" to go utensils are made of potatoes), and I found some surprisingly upscale offerings that blend the luxury of city tastes with the country style of Texas.

For the ultimate in facials, the Lake Austin spa resort offers an 80 minute diamond facial which stimulates collagen production and uses diamond particles to make your face sparkle for $230 (diamonds are expensive). They offer other unusual and slightly less expensive options too, including Asian cupping, marine facials, and a tour of Texas session which includes a scrub using prickly pear, an aloe wrap, and ending with an essential oil massage; try out more than one offering if you have time. This spa resort was named by Conde Nast Traveler magazine as the #1 readers choice in North America in 2008, so it is worth a trip to Austin. If you go with six or more people, you get 40% off their regular rates, so get a discount by making it a party!

If you are going to make the trip, make sure that you stop at Jeffrey's which shows that Texas isn't just home to BBQ and cowboys anymore. Jeffrey's has the kind of food that is putting Austin on foodie itineraries with twists on American comfort food and European techniques that are as beautiful to your tastebuds as they are on a plate. You can be decadent with Petrossian caviar and blinis to start, or adventurous with crispy oysters on yucca root chips with habanero honey aïoli, then for an entree, choose either the balsamic braised short ribs with cheddar chive potatoes & roasted garlic olive sauce, or the prosciutto wrapped chinook salmon with fettucine, mushroom tapenade, and pistachio pesto. Make sure you save room for a dessert like their caramelized crêpes with butter pecan ice cream & citrus confit (or share it).

Austin may not have been on your radar, but there are more reasons than ever to explore it as it grows into a destination for spa and food lovers with roots in southern hospitality.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Eat Your Veggies!

Over ten years ago, one of my friends took me to Real Food Daily before the restaurant became the Grandmother of the organic vegan world, and vegan restaurants started proliferating like sprouts. I usually order their burger with avocado, tempeh bacon, and cashew cheese, which I've bet meat lovers they would love once they taste it (and I end up winning the bet). If you have never had vegan food, they have familiar Mexican plates, like a burrito with Spanish rice, black beans, tempeh bacon, peppers, jalapeno cashew cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and tofu sour cream, as well as creative pasta dishes that are good starting points for a journey into this new world. Their philosophy of environmental awareness and consciousness extends to nearly everything they do; they even use water that has been purified with filters and by reverse osmosis, so no plastic bottles here. Their green bent does not detract from the tasty food; this is one of the few Vegan places where I actually like the chocolate cake they offer for dessert.

The Veggie Grill is a new chain that started in Orange County and has moved north to El Segundo and soon to Hollywood, bringing a fresh taste to Los Angeles. Their healthy food is a great alternative when you want a quick lunch or take out without worrying about getting a fast food hangover later. Their plant based proteins are tasty and they offer them in salads and sandwiches which mimic animal meat with dishes like their Chipotle Veggie Steak, which is served with chipotle BBQ sauce, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomatoes. If you order a salad, they are a bit heavy handed in their saucing, so order your dressing on the side. My friend Cindy loves the Don't Be a Chicken Sandwich which is their version of a grilled chicken sandwich (without any antibiotic or hormone ridden chicken). They even have a kid's meal, so you can introduce your children to healthier eating habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

Urth Cafe is my favorite health food restaurant chain, originally known for its' organic coffees and teas. They were one of the first (and only) places to sell organic, fair trade, shade grown, sustainable crop coffee. Like all good things, it started with one location that was (and still is) so wildly popular and packed that there was never any parking or tables available without requiring a lot of patience. Now with three locations around Los Angeles, they have expanded their menu to include delicious soups, sandwiches, and salads. Even their drink menu has grown to include choices like chai and boba teas. You may order their coffees and teas online, but you must go to them to taste their wonderful food. I crave their vegetarian chili and chicken noodle soup on cold days (a rarity in Los Angeles). They are famous for their desserts (if you want to have a spectacular Thanksgiving pie, you have to order their pumpkin and pecan pies weeks in advance); their coconut pound cake is probably my favorite dessert in Los Angeles. They practice what they preach about sustainable growth and ecology; their newest location in Santa Monica was built to use solar energy to power the restaurant and there is a meter on the wall that shows the energy the restaurant gets and uses from the solar panels on the roof.

Help the planet and your body by eating your veggies!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Bay Cities

It's is always a pleasure to find a family run business that still thrives in this era of super chains. Good quality and service have kept Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery around since 1925, but I only found out about it two years ago from Mark, a Santa Monica native. The perpetually jammed parking lot and lines out the door attest to the popularity of this neighborhood bakery, deli and Italian supermarket.

Some people come just for the freshly baked bread (which comes out several times a day in various sizes and shapes). Every meat lover loves their Godmother sandwich with every Italian deli meat on it, but my favorite is the Sausalito, a spicy turkey breast. Every sandwich is made to order, so pick your favorite filling (they have three kinds of prosciutto), toppings, and have your sandwich made on their freshly baked Italian rolls (I recommend ordering any peppers or dressing on the side as the vinegar tends to make the bread mushy if it sits too long before you eat it). There is almost always a wait and a line if you walk in, so take a number the minute you walk in, and shop in the store for chips, drinks, and hand made cookies to go with your sandwich while you wait. If you want to avoid the line, order online or by fax and they will have it ready for you when you arrive.

The store is filled with everything you could want to make an authentic Italian meal, including shelves full of imported tomato sauces, pastas, capers and anchovies. Shopping here is like going overseas; they carry some of my favorite products like Pomi marinara, De Cecco pasta, and they even have white anchovies. There is a specialty cheese and olive deli case in the back of the store, and they also carry some Greek items, like spanikopita, so you could make it an international feast. If you don't want to cook, get some of the prepared deli items, like their roasted balsamic vegetables, lasagna, or eggplant parmesan, and an tiramisu to take home.

This is a perfect place to come pick up a lunch for a nice day at the beach (just 8 blocks away), or to eat at one of the tables outside the deli. Don't forget to bring home the supplies to cook up an Italian dinner complete with freshly baked bread before you leave so you can savor the flavors of Italy all day long.

Buono Appetito!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music of the night

Harvelle's is the kind of place that you can go to on the spur of the moment after dinner to listen to live music and dance. It's one of the hole in the wall places that has been around since the 1930's and still manages to stay up to date with new acts and fresh faces, even though some of the patrons have been here for decades, the music mix is broad enough (and good enough) to attract the new blood that every place needs to live on in live music venues. The music tends to lean more on soul, rock, and jazz, but they also feature bongo night with Cuban/Afro beats and they have live dancers with the music on some week-end nights. The dance floor is small and gets packed, but usually there is enough room to at least stand and move around the place (a little). Harvelle's is a bar, so no one under 21 is allowed inside; if you're not 21 yet, then you'll just have to listen to the music from the sidewalk for now. The drinks have fun names, like the Deadly Sins, so you can choose which sinful martini you wish to attribute your hangover to, hmmm, maybe gluttonny?

For a completely different musical venue, there is Vibrato in Bel Air. This is an upscale, low key, much more formal place. If you are looking for a place to take a date or business associate for classic prime cuts of beef and freshly grilled wild salmon, with mellow jazz, this is the place to go. They have a wide and varied selection of wines, and the service is superb. All this elegance costs money, especially in Bel Air, but it's not unreasonable for a special occasion (or simply if you love to indulge your palate). They do have a small dance floor which attracts seasoned dancers. It's the kind of place that used to be the norm in the 1950's and 1960's, when people got dressed up to go to dinner, and live music was expected for an upscale restaurant.

Choose either venue depending on your mood and musical preference; as long as you have music in the night, it is a good night.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Old Little Tokyo in Los Angeles

Little Tokyo is hidden East of downtown off the 10 freeway, but with the advent of lofts that have become live-in art galleries and the infusion of the in-every-mall chain stores, Little Tokyo is transforming into an eclectic mix of old character Japanese and new homogenized anywhere USA. No one needs a guide to the name brands we already know, so today it's about the old characters which are still around and are the reasons this area is called Little Tokyo.

There is the Japanese bread bakery that people drive miles to come to from the west side of town, (even with traffic that can make the 10 mile drive an hour long commute). Yamakazi has its' roots in Japan, but the breads are baked here, and the quality of their simply sliced white bread screams, "Eat me!" If you want to try one of their typically Japanese sweet breads, try their cream pan or melon pan. They are famous for something they call Sugar Toast; it's a dessert, but it wants to be called something else (shhh!).

There is the landmark Japanese supermarket Mitsuwa, in the huge nearly empty shopping center, but go just for the market to peruse the produce, fish, and sauces which come directly from Japan. Yes, some of their fruit and fish are flown in from Japan. Some of the packages and cans are marked only in Japanese, but most have pictures, and store staff will translate if you need them to tell you whether you are looking at a sauce made from fish or sauce for fish. If you are very adventurous, just buy it and try it! Shopping here gives you an idea of how immigrants feel coming here to the U.S. where everything is in English and they must figure out if the tuna is for people or cats. There are many stores within the market, making it a mini shopping center within itself, such as: the Apple Bakery, with whipped cream strawberry cakes; Little Tokyo Cosmetics for all things Shisedo; Daikichi Sushi for lunch boxes of fresh sushi; and Fugetsu-Do for fresh mochi and bean paste sweets.

The art of handcrafted pottery is becoming extinct, but there are still a few places like Utsuwa, which sell old-fashioned plates, bowls, cups, and pots that are hand made, glazed and painted. Of course most of the pieces are from Japan, where craftsmanship is still regarded with respect, and where people prefer the quality of a well thrown bowl to one which is mass produced. The hand made ones are heavier, all unique (since each is hand glazed, no two are exactly alike), and have a feel that is as different from the Made in China pottery as stainless steel is to tin cutlery. After buying a few pieces I decided to buy a set of dinnerware, including a matching sake set at Utsuwa. Everyone admires the quality of this set and they always ask where I bought it. The pieces are not more expensive than fine china (and much more durable), but they do cost quite a bit more than the sets made in China that every college student starts out owning. These pieces are the grown-up upgrade. Utsuwa offers a loyalty program where they stamp a card with your repeat purchase amount and offer store coupons when the card is filled; a good way to build your dish collection with a discount.

Some good old restaurants remain, like East, which has a little bit of everything from sushi to tempura, teriyaki, and salmon specials on Monday nights. If you can't decide what you want, just to go to East restaurant and order a combination.

Finally if you are tired and don't want to drive home after your day in Old Little Tokyo, get a room! The Kyoto Grand Hotel got a recent $8 million dollar renovation to send you off to dream about your adventures in lush surroundings. Oyasuminasai (Good Night).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Laguna Summer

Summer is coming and a couple of days or week at the beach is a nice getaway for those of us who don't live by the ocean. I rented the Calef Beach Chateau in Laguna Beach from VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) and woke to a beautiful view of the ocean from a lovely studio with a quiet patio, a fully equipped kitchen, and bathroom for only $135 a night. The special touches of owners who live on their property show, from the fluffy bathrobes, to the condiments in the kitchen, everything in their accommodations makes you feel more like an invited guest than a renter. If you are willing to walk the steep hill down to Coast Highway, there is a gourmet restaurant at the bottom, so you don't even have to drive for a meal if you have the shoes and stamina to walk. As with my rental in Paris, they offer a welcome bottle of wine upon arrival; sipping a glass of wine at sunset or having coffee in the morning on the beautiful patio is a perk you don't get in hotel rooms at this price. My friend Cindy, who lives nearby, came over and said she would send friends and relatives here when they come to visit her because it really is a nice home away from home.

If you do decide to drive down the hill, go to my favorite restaurant Sapphire Laguna (see earlier post), or 230 Forest Ave in the heart of town (order the tuna nicoise salad-the BEST I have eaten anywhere, then indulge in the croissant bread pudding for dessert). If you want to truly feel like you're on vacation, head over to Eva's Caribbean Kitchen which welcomes you with a smile, a sense of humor, spicy food and sweet drinks. Their menu belies their spirit and humor as wine is listed under "old fermented grape juice" and you are warned that they are on Caribbean time (you can't rush a good thing, you know, like loving, it takes time and care).

Go to the beach this summer and play!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Mondo Gelato

Mondo Gelato is one of those rare places which uses premium natural ingredients to make a daily fresh gelato. If you have ever tasted homemade ice cream, you know how much better it tastes than the containers that you buy at the supermarket. Handmade artisanal gelato also tastes far better than commercially made ice cream or gelato, mainly because there are no preservatives added to maintain shelf life. If you eat it the day it is made, like all things freshly made, the quality and flavor are far better than something made to last for months in a freezer. If you have never had gelato in Italy (or if you have and miss it), come here for a true taste of Italian creamy goodness. Believe it or not, gelato has less fat and less air than most ice cream, and if you are looking for some truly Italian flavors, Mondo Gelato has pistachio, tiramisu, and espresso.

They also carry frozen yogurt for those seeking a treat that is lower in fat and higher in nutrients, as well as sorbetto for the lightest non dairy option. Even though this is a small shop with only a few tables and seats, the flavors range from an exotic kiwi sorbetto, to faloudeh, which is an Iranian rice noodle and rose water treat traditionally served with lemon juice. Faloudeh has a fresh taste and unusual texture, a good choice for those who don't want a creamy sweet. Of course they carry all the traditional favorites too, with frozen yogurt options like German chocolate cake, and strawberry banana.

After a movie across the street at the independent film theater the Landmark, stroll across the street and venture away from the vanilla packaged desserts you know to Mondo Gelato. Try it, you might like it better than the big chain ice cream shop next door.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Healing Power

Healing can also be a state of mind, and loving kindness is a state of being that we can all benefit from on this planet. There is a book called The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferrucci which explores the magnitude of this power in small daily acts that have big impact. The chapters explore different ways we can be kind to ourselves and others, from honesty to respect, and ending in joy (what else would be the concluding chapter?). A pleasure to read and to share, this book is a kind reminder of the power that can come from empathy, generosity, and service.

Another great book which can heal is Ask and It Is Given by Jerry and Esther Hicks. This book literally changed my life after I applied the principal of feeling to my intentions. The basic premise is that we can think and wish for things to manifest, but until we FEEL it, our thoughts do not have the power to create. The simple premise of being honest about how we truly feel and taking a small step toward a better feeling, is the basis of this book. If what you wish is unbelievable to your emotions, then ask yourself what would feel better AND be believable? So many books talk about manifestation, but these are the original authors of the principal that your emotions must be in alignment with joy and truth to create what you desire (more joy and truth).

Sometimes healing is needed by your body; for those of us who have any kind of muscle pain or soreness on a regular basis, Arnica Gold is one product that we must have in our medicine cabinet. This is the highest concentration (20x rather than the 1x sold at most health food stores) of the arnica montana flower that is available over the counter. It is anti-fungal and anti-bacterial, and they sell this to surgical offices for patients to apply after surgery to prevent scarring. Massage therapists use this on clients who have chronic pain and I prefer its' nearly odorless formula over the less effective and smelly ointments we all grew up slathered with whenever we were achy. My massage therapist, Jessie, offers it for sale at his studio. They even have a smaller travel size that is refillable, so you can take it with you when you travel; you never know when you may need a touch of healing.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Investing Money

If you are already a saver with a nice six month reserve and no debt, maybe it is time to venture to a brokerage house and invest in a good quality low risk mutual fund, like a no load T. Rowe Price, or Vanguard fund. When I opened my first brokerage account, I decided to do it with Scottrade. I am still happy with their account set up and their $7 trades ($17 for no-load mutual fund trades). A sign of good customer relations is their personal service, which I used frequently in the first weeks as I struggled to understand what all the terms meant (market order, gtc, and stop limit were all words of a new language to me). They patiently and helpfully guided me through my first transactions over the phone and I had the option of going to their nearby office if I needed a live person. Their service was so good that I moved my retirement accounts over to them. Their customer service has been consistently good through the years; they called to tell me that I had inadvertently sent more than the maximum yearly contribution to my IRA account, so would I prefer to have the excess applied to the following year? YES!

Scottrade is a great way to get your feet wet in the world of stocks and mutual funds. There is only a $1000 minimum to open a money market account and start trading, but you can open a retirement account for less depending on the type you choose to open. Even if you don't trade, but just want to park your money in a money market and do research through their website, it is easy and worth it. They offer a watch list, with historical and current market analysis tools for stocks and mutual funds, so you can just watch and learn until you are ready to trade.

If you are already well versed in stocks, trading, and have thought about doing it as a career, then TD Ameritrade would be my pick for a brokerage account. They offer a tool called Apex which gives you Nasdaq Level II quotes and a host of strategy and analysis tools that allow you to be proactive in your investments. For this higher level of information and tools, it costs a bit more ($9.99 per trade plus the cost of APEX), but the cost of having more tools may be worth it to your portfolio. As with Scottrade, you can start by just opening up a money market account and learning by doing research until you are ready to invest.

For those who have never invested, the best research is your own. Talk to your accountant, financial planner, or EA about your goals. Read the books written by professional investors and experts, but YOU are the final decider. Taking some expert opinion on a stock or a mutual fund trade is like taking a movie critic's advice about what movie to see; you may agree or disagree with the critic after you watch the movie yourself. You are the only one who knows if you will like the risk, product, company, and management, based on your own experience and risk tolerance. Be willing to invest the time to learn through sites like Morningstar and Marketwatch, and watch a financial TV program like CNBC every so often to just get an overview of the current financial climate

Most us will read a label before using a product; read the prospectus before investing. Be smart with your money; you earned it, use it wisely.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sweet perfume

Perfumes West has been around for about 20 years, and I know this because I've been buying perfume and hair care products from them since they opened. That's a very good sign of their appeal: first because they are still in business even with all the competition from big name retailers just a few blocks away in the mall, and secondly, because even with all the internet shopping I do, I still go to them for my perfume purchases. They carry all the major brands as well as gift sets at a discount (a few exclusions apply, but prices are never any higher than you would find elsewhere for the excluded brands). They also carry a full line of hair care like L'Anza and Paul Mitchell. Most of their skin care products are 25% off retail, and although some brands like La Prairie can not be found at any discount at all elsewhere, they offer a 10% savings for them here. There is a small parking lot in the back and the staff is very helpful without being pushy.

If Perfumes West doesn't have it, then try going online at 1st Perfume which carries perfume for men, women, and gift sets. They also carry some fragrances which are no longer available in retail locations, so if you are looking for an old favorite, check their clearance section. A friend of mine looked for a men's cologne that is no longer sold here in the U.S. in every major department store, but to no avail. I found exactly what he wanted at 1st Perfume, and it was on sale!

Another place to try for a fun shopping experience as well as a unique take on your individual scent is Vert on Abbot Kinney which I wrote about in an earlier post. Not only can you choose a scent for yourself, but you can have the same scent throughout your home, from your linens to your bath products.

Success is finding your scent. Go be successful!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Lifestraw saving lives

We are lucky to have easy access to drinking water nearly everywhere any time we are thirsty; just turning a faucet will get most of us safe drinking water. Those of us who have gotten diarrhea from water we have drunk, know how it feels to suffer the consequences of drinking unsafe water from unknown sources. One of the things necessary for all humans to thrive is clean drinking water. It is especially crucial in areas of the world where it is difficult, if not impossible to find any water, and people drink whatever water is available. About 6,000 people die from diarrhea daily because they are drinking contaminated water. Finding an inexpensive and easy way to purify water in countries ravaged by disease is literally a lifesaver.

Lifestraw is a remarkable invention to purify water so that people can safely drink water no matter how contaminated it may be. For only $4 each or $15 for a family filtration system, Lifestraw eliminates parasites, contaminates, and bacteria to EPA safe drinking water standards. The mission of this company is to get this product to as many of these to the people that need them as possible, so to that end, Lifestraw accepts donations through the Rotary Club in Florida. They do not sell individual units for profit, they only sell in bulk to organizations who distribute Lifestraws to areas that need clean drinking water. It is rare to find a company who is in business to help others live better lives, rather than helping themselves live wealthier lives.

Sometimes the most effective means to a better life is also the simplest, just share what you already have. If you make a donation to help Lifestraw spread clean drinking water around the world, you are sharing the wealth you already have every time you turn on your faucet.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Saving Wisely

I opened up my first bank account when I was about eight. Christmas and birthday presents sometimes came in checks or cash, so they got deposited into my savings account. I loved watching my money grow, and have been a saver ever since. There is a great satisfaction in watching your money multiply with compounded interest, while all you do is leave it alone and give it time.

My choice for my savings account now is ING Direct. They have CD's and checking accounts for individuals and business which offer better interest rates for lower minimums than any brick and mortar bank. Currently their savings account rate is 3% with no minimum and it's insured by the FDIC! If you have any amount of money sitting in your checking account that you are not using, you owe it to yourself to move it to this savings account and allow compound interest to make you some money.

You can set up an automatic savings plan that will make your money grow without you having to remember to put it aside every month. Even if you move only $100 (that's about 30 days of buying one vente mocha a day), the compounding interest will eventually grow enough to cover your checking account fees at your other bank, and you will have $1200 (not counting interest) at the end of the year.

Or better yet, move your checking to an ING checking account. Their checking accounts still earn higher interest with lower minimums than you are surely getting at your bank now (unless you have several million dollars at your bank, in which case, you need to move $100,000 over to ING Direct to keep it FDIC insured), and spread the rest to other FDIC insured banking institutions to keep yourself insured under the FDIC limit of $100,000 per account holder.

If you don't feel comfortable with an online bank (they do have internet cafe locations in various states where you can go in and get help setting up or maintaining your account), you should take into consideration that ING is a big and well-known Dutch bank which is only limited by US banking regulations from proliferating to every block to keep down competition to local US banks. Being a Dutch bank has advantages because the Dutch are very conservative; they would always be very strict with regulations concerning money (no sub-prime loans would ever be made, much less sold in Holland). Countries whose cultures encourage saving, will protect the savings.

If you still don't want to open an online account, then walk into your nearest credit union (nearly anyone can open an account in a credit union, some require only that you are a resident of the city or state where you live) and open a savings account. Unlike a commercial bank, you become part of a credit union, so your money is used for loans to other members and their money can be used as a loan to you. In a credit union, your money will be working locally and you are setting up a relationship that could help you with your next home mortgage or auto loan.

Saving your money in a safe place is important, but just as important is doing it in a smart place where it can earn you a good return and / or future benefits.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

London and Paris

Yes, you CAN afford to travel to England especially if you take advantage of the Hoxton Hotel deal. You can book a room for about $2 a night. Yes, you read that correctly, a boutique hotel in London for ONE pound sterling! This is not a hostel, but a hotel room in a hip stylish hotel that includes a free healthy breakfast (fresh orange juice, yogurt, banana), WiFi, and the rooms come equipped with a duck feather duvet and Aveda products! They try to include thoughtful touches like low international phone rates; calls to the US are only 5p per minute (about 10 cents). There is a limit of only one room per person at this special rate (you can sleep up to 2 people in a room), and to be sure you get a chance to book, you should sign up on their mailing list (1000 rooms were sold in 20 minutes when they had their last sale), but even without this special deal, prices this summer start around 59 pounds ($120 USD); where else in Europe is there a hotel bargain like this these days?

If nothing but Paris will do for you, then book an apartment and live like a native. I rented my apartment this year through Beau Paris which is an apartment owner maintained service (as opposed to a real estate type of management service). There are dozens of pictures and helpful materials about the area that were sent to me before my arrival. I loved my flat with all the thoughtful amenities: a computer with high speed Internet access, a washer and drying rack in the apartment, CD's, books, a flat screen TV, and a welcome bottle of wine. It cost about $120 a night for 3 nights (less if you stay longer) in a one bedroom that slept four comfortably. The owners speak perfect English and they were only a telephone call away for any questions about their Rue Truffaut property (read the posted comments to read more about my impressions of this property).
I was impressed that my rental deposit was returned to my paypal account before my flight landed back in the US, along with an email from the owners thanking me for my stay. I can say that my experience with Beau-Paris was perfect and I would prefer to rent from them than to rent a hotel room any day.

With the high speed train between London and Paris, you can actually visit the two cities if you are staying somewhere else, but it's always better to stay than to visit.

Monday, June 2, 2008

French Chocolate Indulgences

My favorite chocolates do not come from Switzerland or Belgium, but from France. DeBauve et Gallais have been making chocolate for French royalty since 1800. I know most people won't fly to Paris to buy chocolate, but they do have a store in New York City, and they will ship all over the world. This chocolate was one of the things Marie Antoinette ate to help her swallow her medicine, but I think we would all take our medicine if we had to eat DeBauve et Gallais chocolate with it. DeBauve and Gallais make beautiful and whimsical shapes for the holidays. Their Easter eggs actually have brown shells and white interiors with yellow "yolks" that look so real you forget it is a confection. For golf lovers, they also make an edible golf ball that looks real enough to place on a tee. This kind of fine quality chocolate is very expensive, but once you taste a piece, you will be satisfied with just one piece (or maybe two). Because the smooth rich taste does not have fillers or the added chemicals of industrial commercial chocolate, all you get is chocolate purity and satisfaction.

Pierre Herme is another famous chocolatier who used to work with the famous Fauchon store until he created his own unique gourmet shops. Because of his reputation with Fauchon, he had an immediate following for his macaroons (small disks of light cake filled with creamy centers) with exotic flavors like lychee and rose petal. But his chocolates are in the primary showcase in a shop full of delectable cakes, jams, and pastries. If you are seeking chocolate which has surprising flavors (like a hint of salty caramel to bring out the sweetness), head to this destination. Unfortunately he only ships and has locations in Europe and Japan, but Fauchon has a store in New York and will ship to U.S. destinations.

Another favorite is Patrick Roger, who won the award for the best chocolatier (chocolate maker) in Paris last year. His creations are creative with flavors of saffron, ginger, even citronella. Unfortunately, you must travel to his shops or live somewhere in Europe to order his creations, but hopefully he will expand his delivery to the U.S. one day. Until then, his shop is a good reason to travel to Paris (as if anyone needs a reason to go to Paris).

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Some Abbot Kinney

Boho style comes from places like Abbot Kinney in Venice where all the bohemian chic clothes and jewelry you could wear can be found on several blocks. There are countless shops and eateries along this street, but today we'll start with Vert, Primitivo, and Joe's.

Vert offers organic and green (hence the name) products from candles to make-up which allow you to subtly enhance your style. Whether you choose to decorate your home with fragrant candles (which you can pair with a matching fragrances to wear), or use their environmentally friendly beauty products, you will enjoy shopping in this open minimalist shop. They offer everything from cleaning products to hair products, all made with the environment or your health in mind. For a limited time, they are having a 50% off sale on their Bare Escentuals Mineral make-up products, so hurry in if you want to take advantage of this great make-up at an unbelievable price. They will be offering their items online soon, so if you don't live in the area, you can shop here (virtually) in the near future.

Maybe after all that shopping you are hungry for a small bite or a nice glass of wine. Head over to Primitivo Wine bar just down the street. Their selection of Old and New world whites and reds includes some nice half bottle selections like a Cote de Brouilly. If you go for their happy hour they offer sangria for only $3. A menu of tapas is available here, but the portions tend to be about as big as an entree, so order only one plate to share before dinner, or it will be your dinner.

Dinner at Joe's (next door to Primitivo) is a great way to end the evening. Some days they offer a prix fixe menu for both lunch ($18) and dinner ($61), so choose that menu if you can't decide between the grilled Fijian Escolar or the Duck confit. I was very impressed that they offer a cabecou cheese (a French goat cheese) salad on one of their lunch menus. I have never seen cabecou offered anywhere outside of France, but I have also never seen Tasmanian Sea Bass offered anywhere else in Los Angeles. Service is efficient, friendly and delivered with a genuine smile. This is one neighborhood restaurant that has earned it's regional reputation for excellent food at reasonable prices.

This is just some of the boho world on a small street in Venice, but sometimes you can find all you want without leaving home, just like Dorothy. You might even find some ruby slippers in your size.